The hardest part of making a gorgeous time-lapse is the time part. If you want to see the Aurora Borealis weave serpentine trails of charged particles through the sky or the stars spin around Polaris, you have to set up your camera and wait the amount of time you want lapsed. That’s no longer the case.
Researchers from the University of Washington and Google are now reporting that, using 86 million public domain photos from digital repositories like Flickr, they have been able to construct time-lapses of commonly photographed landmarks using only photo timestamps and a bit of digital wizardry.
Here’s how they did it. Using a process the team dubbed “time-lapse mining,” the time-lapses began as photos clustering around a single vantage point. But of course, not every image would be the same. Day, night, looking down, looking up, every photo of the same thing was unique. So each photo in a cluster — around 1,000 photos made up each of the 11,000 time-lapses generated — had to be “warped” to show the same vantage point as the others and then stabilized.
The thousands of time-lapses the team’s algorithm spit out covered up to 10 years of data, each taking hours to render. It was a tedious process at first, but it eventually got to a point where the algorithms took over. And the results were both fascinating and beautiful.
Buildings spring out of the earth:
Mt. St. Helens’ snow waxes and wanes:
And a guard at Vatican City was consistent enough over the years to become like a painting on time’s easel:
Not all of the time-lapses the algorithms created were that interesting, or even sensible. For example, if the subject of a time-lapse moved too much, the entire re-construction would be distorted. If too many day and night photos were used in the time-lapse, an unnatural “twilight effect” would take over (not vampires, just shading).
But the researchers think this technique will only get more robust as technology improves and almost all of our pictures move to digital storage. Like using the shuffled pages of a book to reconstitute the progression of a story, each photo we take might one day tell us something about the past we couldn’t see before.
To see more of the results, including many more time-lapses, check out the full video of the researchers’ results below: